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A stirring tale of romance and deception staged on an epic scale by director Frank Lloyd, The Sea Hawk (1924) captures the majesty and vigor of silent cinema at its most spectacular. Based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, the author of Scaramouche and Captain Blood, the film is a swashbuckling epic of the highest order, spanning several years and continents as it tells the story of Oliver Tressilian, a British nobleman falsely accused of murder, and dramatizes his valiant efforts to restore honor to his name.
Although knighted by the queen for his bravery on the seas, Sir Oliver Tressilian bears the reputation of a bloodthirsty pirate. When he offers to defend his reputation with a sword, it only seems to confirm the rumor to his betrothed, Lady Rosamund Godolphin (Enid Bennett). When her brother Peter (Wallace MacDonald) is killed in a duel, Oliver is given the blame, even though it was his brother Lionel (Lloyd Hughes) who slayed the "hot-headed young blade." Rather than confess to the deed, Lionel allows Oliver to shoulder the blame and even pays the unscrupulous Captain Leigh (Wallace Beery) to shanghai the innocent Oliver, and ferry him to sea on board The Swallow. Just when Oliver discovers his brother's treachery, the ship is attacked by a Spanish galleon and he is taken into slavery, chained to the oars of the marauding ship.
Sabatini's 1915 novel had been considered and then rejected by several studios over the years, owing to the inevitable expense and complexity of production, until it finally reached producer/director Lloyd. Best remembered as the director of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Lloyd distinguished himself by adapting larger-than-life literary works to the screen. By the time he made The Sea Hawk, Lloyd's credits included Les Miserables (1917), A Tale of Two Cities (1917) and Oliver Twist (1922). He was a disciplined producer and a craftsman-like director whose tendency to honor the literary source rather than his own interpretation caused him to become a rather neglected figure in film history, even though he has an impressive list of directorial credits.
After reading the novel, Lloyd passed it along to actor Milton Sills. Another noteworthy figure who was extremely popular in his day, Sills faded from memory as tastes in leading men have gradually evolved away from his rugged but stiff demeanor. Sills excelled in two-fisted tales in which romance was merely a by-product of adventure: The Valley of the Giants (1927), The Crash (1928) and Maurice Tourneur's The Isle of Lost Ships (1923). Sills was, to say the least, keenly interested in The Sea Hawk. He finished the novel in a single sitting and immediately volunteered to star in the epic production.
As the much fought-over Rosamund, Australian-born Enid Bennett virtually reprised her role as Maid Marian in Douglas Fairbanks's Robin Hood (1922). In addition, Wallace Beery, a prolific character actor throughout the silent era, alternated between brutish villains and sloppy, lovable rogues throughout his career, and The Sea Hawk shows both sides of the Beery coin. It wasn't until six years later -- with Min and Bill (1930) and The Champ (1931) -- that the full potential of his unique persona (the growling, unshaven teddy bear) was finally realized, enabling him to blossom into a popular leading man.
Moviegoers of 1924 were sophisticated enough to recognize miniature models, so producer/director Lloyd insisted that full-sized ships be fabricated at a cost of $200,000. This enabled Lloyd to line the deck with cutlass-waving actors and to convincingly depict the oaring of a slave-powered galleon. The ships were in fact existing crafts outfitted with new wooden exteriors by designer Fred Gabourie, who is most famous for constructing the elaborate and often enormous props used in Buster Keaton's slapstick comedies.
The ocean scenes were filmed off the coast of Catalina Island, a popular vacation spot for Hollywood's elite, which was frequently used as a stand-in for exotic locales. According to production manager Harry E. Weil, 150 tents were erected in order to house and support the 1,000 extras, 21 technicians, 14 actors and 64 sailors on the island.
Produced in an era when Americans were fascinated by Orientalism -- in architecture, design and especially cinema, The Sea Hawk echoes the exoticism of Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915), Rudolph Valentino's The Sheik (1921) and Douglas Fairbanks's The Thief of Bagdad (1924). The fascination with Asian and Arabic culture seemed less rooted in domed roofs and linen robes than the spectacle of sexual servitude. An ad in The New York Times, appearing the day before the film's premiere, promised:
-- Beautiful women kidnapped on land and sea.
-- Slave girls sold in irons in the Moorish markets.
-- Harem scenes in Mohammedan strongholds.
Further down on the list were the more conventional spectacles of duels, battling ships and "galley slaves flogged at the oars."
Producer/Director: Frank Lloyd
Screenplay: J.G. Hawks, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini
Cinematography: Norbert F. Brodin
Production Design: Stephen Goosson, Fred Gabourie
Music: Robert Israel (organ score)
Cast: Milton Sills (Sir Oliver Tressilian), Enid Bennett (Lady Rosamund Godolphin), Wallace Beery (Captain Jasper Leigh), Lloyd Hughes (Lionel Tressilian), Marc McDermott (Sir John Killigrew), Wallace MacDonald (Peter Godolphin).
by Bret Wood